Like good investors, automakers are diversifying their portfolios. Thanks to self-driving software, urban congestion, and other factors, many companies believe that vehicle ownership will become less common in the coming decades. As a result, automakers have been putting their eggs in new and different baskets in the hope of remaining leaders in the transportation field.
Two of today's most popular "baskets" are car-sharing and ride-sharing companies. General Motors, for example, has invested heavily in the ride-sharing company Lyft, and it's launched its own car-sharing service called Maven.
Today, Toyota went one step further, announcing that it has created a new platform for car-sharing companies to employ.
One box to rule them all
Toyota's Mobility Services Platform (not the most original name, but whatever) offers a range of services that companies like RelayRides and Zipcar can employ to manage their fleets of vehicles. The most interesting of these is something called the Smart Key Box.
The Box is, quite literally, a box that sits in the fleet vehicle, and it works just like a regular car key. However, it's activated via the user's smartphone.
It works like this: say you want to borrow someone's car. You reserve it on your car-sharing app of choice, then you receive a special code that works with the vehicle's Smart Key Box. You can then use the car-sharing app on your phone to lock and unlock the vehicle's doors and start the engine.
This arrangement offers a few advantages over traditional car-sharing services. While some of those have used apps or telematics services like OnStar to lock and unlock cars, drivers have still needed to access physical keys. By eliminating the key and using a stationary box instead, there's less chances for keys to become lost.
Also, the Smart Key Box will let owners monitor--and potentially cut off--usage of their vehicles. That's something they wouldn't necessarily be able to do if they were providing access to ignition keys.
Toyota will pilot the program in San Francisco next year, in partnership with Getaround. The automaker is also working on a new leasing option similar to the one that GM worked out for Lyft drivers. Though details haven't been fully revealed, it appears that if you lease a Toyota vehicle and take part in a car-sharing program, part of your income from that program will be automatically applied to your lease.
But arguably the most interesting bit of information to come from Toyota today was this wee bombshell, buried toward the end of its press release: "Based on the exploration results, Toyota will consider using the [Mobility Services Platform] for other mobility services in Japan, like unmanned rent-a-car businesses."
In other words: "Uber, we know we're your partner and everything, but we're coming for you."